I read Brad Maule’s article, “I Like To Be Here When I Can” describing his return to Philadelphia and was comforted that Brad realized what he was missing after he moved to Portland, and that he had genuinely pined for the certain something that Philadelphia has. Then I read the reader’s comment that began with “I wish I could concur…” Words and phrases in that comment include: toxic, hostility, ignorance, and lack of civility.
This got me thinking about the complicated relationship Philadelphians have seemingly always had with their city. The negative views of Philadelphia by its own people are not new. They are even older the slogan on the famous billboard along the Schuylkill Expressway put up by a booster group called Action Philadelphia as part of a campaign to promote the city in the early 1970s: “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.”
In fact, the habit of Philadelphians to denigrate themselves and their city harkens back at least to the 1720s (when Philadelphia was barely Philadelphia), specifically to a landowner named Sam Mickle. As Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography:
There are croakers in every country, always boding its ruin. Such a one then lived in Philadelphia; a person of note, an elderly man, with a wise look and a very grave manner of speaking; his name was Samuel Mickle. This gentleman, a stranger to me, stopt one day at my door, and asked me if I was the young man who had lately opened a new printing-house. Being answered in the affirmative, he said he was sorry for me, because it was an expensive undertaking, and the expense would be lost; for Philadelphia was a sinking place, the people already half-bankrupts, or near being so; all appearances to the contrary, such as new buildings and the rise of rents, being to his certain knowledge fallacious; for they were, in fact, among the things that would soon ruin us. And he gave me such a detail of misfortunes now existing, or that were soon to exist, that he left me half melancholy. Had I known him before I engaged in this business, probably I never should have done it. This man continued to live in this decaying place, and to declaim in the same strain, refusing for many years to buy a house there, because all was going to destruction; and at last I had the pleasure of seeing him give five times as much for one as he might have bought it for when he first began his croaking.
This sort of local self-denigration likely stems from the Quaker tenet of avoiding prideful boasting. Such super-modesty inflected the local parlance from the get-go and was strong enough even to survive the coming positivism of Franklin himself.
The “croaker” reputation evolved into an inferiority complex that many Philadelphians indeed came to believe, and which developed into a pessimistic attitude toward the city. In a 1980 article, “The Origins of Philadelphia’s Self-Depreciation,” historian and librarian Edwin Wolf, of the Library Company, traced the complex to 1797, when New York passed Philadelphia in export business. “Was the city like a prize fighter on the downgrade who loses his will to fight long before his ability to do so?” he asked.
And then: “What was it that turned the ebullient, successful colonial city, the glamorous Federal city, into a self-depreciating town that saw itself perpetually clad in Quaker gray long after the Quakers no longer dominated? What were the urban traumas that were peculiarly Philadelphian? How could a metropolis with multifarious cultural and educational institutions, with a rich mix of different religions, with a healthy press and a broad spectrum of industries come to see itself essentially as Sidney George Fisher did in 1839: ‘Returned to Philad: as I always do, with the conviction that dull, monotonous & humdrum as it is, it is the most comfortable & desirable place for a residence in this country.’
“Yet,” noted Wolf, “Fisher was somewhat more generous than Nathaniel Burt writing a century and a quarter later. Speaking of self-depreciation, he went on: ‘In fact, negativeness itself is typical. What Owen Wister called the “instinct of disparagement” that makes Philadelphians run everything down, specially things Philadelphian, is a form of this negative. This has the advantage of modesty; it also is a blight on creative effort, on reform, on any new enthusiasm.’”
“Would an urban psychoanalysis be historically rewarding and, if the metaphor holds, might it be the first step toward a cure of the city’s inferiority complex,” Wolf wondered still. He sought clues in the constant, manic mood swings between Panglossian boosterism and dour croaking–both felt false and overstated and both a part of our psyche.
Hidden City Daily co-editor Nathaniel Popkin, in the book The Possible City called this illness “a conditioned, and defensive, and ultimately incapacitating pride.”
Wolf couldn’t quite figure it out, only at the end of his essay sighing, “can this not be exorcized?”
Perhaps not. These days, while much of the Philly denigrating comes from angry suburbanites, we persist in not caring for our architectural inheritance and in ignoring our industrial and technological legacy. “What would …Philadelphia be if all the industrial buildings of her remarkable past had been rescued from the bulldozer and converted into something both respectable and right?” wondered the author Beth Kephart, in yesterday’s Inquirer.
Still, we live in a transformative time. Philadelphians across the spectrum are feeling better about themselves and their city (this has been the theme of Kephart’s beautiful, and personal, Inquirer essays. Like Brad, many of us find this place wildly fascinating, exciting, and even beautiful.
Whatever the case, we need to promote the fact that Philadelphia is anything but bad or boring, and that its so-called inferiority complex is just that: a complex. For what ails us politically and economically isn’t much different from what ails other cities of the Rustbelt. And while there is anger and a lack of civility (and much else to complain about) there is also an extraordinary depth of honesty, caring, and intimacy.
And so I am moved to submit to Hidden City readers a few of my favorite quotes about Philadelphia taken from my own encyclopedia. I have chosen those that aren’t mere boostering (and nor are they croaking), but rather those that attempt to get at a particular Philadelphia feeling.
G. K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America, 1922.
It is at least as possible for a Philadelphian to feel the presence of Penn and Franklin as for an Englishman to see the ghosts of Alfred or Becket. Tradition does not mean a dead town; it does not mean that the living are dead but that the dead are alive. It means that it still matters what Penn did two hundred years ago…. I never could feel that in New York that it mattered what anybody did an hour ago.
Struthers Burt, Philadelphia: Holy Experiment, 1945
Philadelphia is a fascinating place and one of the hardest subjects imaginable to write about. The trees are so thick, the little wandering forest byways and paths so numerous and so interesting, that it is almost impossible at times to see the forest.
Steven Conn, Metropolitan Philadelphia: Living with the Presence of the Past, 2006
And so a final caveat: in this book I shall call people in the region generally and generically “Philadelphians.” In the end, perhaps the most important contribution the city makes to the region, and thus the biggest debt owed by the region to the city, is the most ineffable and immeasurable. To say “I’m from Philadelphia” gives people a sense of themselves. It means something, and whatever that something is, it is different from what it means to say “I’m from Chicago,” or “I’m from Phoenix.” I suspect that most people in the region, when they are asked by someone outside the Delaware Valley where they come from, identify themselves as Philadelphians. After all, whatever it may mean to say “I’m from Philadelphia,” responding, “I’m from Horsham,” or “I’m from Upper Dublin,” doesn’t really mean anything at all. For better or worse, in both anger and love, we are Philadelphians.
Larry Kane, Kane’s Philadelphia, 2000
Chances are that, as you read this book, you will get an impression of Philadelphia that’s different from the one you have now. That doesn’t invalidate your Philadelphia. But this book is about my Philadelphia. My Philadelphia is a burgeoning suburban superpower, a community with a countryside of smaller communities, a city of pomp and hopeless poverty, a region where people never take yes for an answer. In this town, you either put up or shut up, and if you don’t have the goods, please don’t come to market. There are no pushovers. Philadelphians can spot a phony a mile away. As they say in South Philadelphia, money talks, bullshit walks.
John P. Hayes, Philadelphia in Color, 1983
Ah, it’s a glorious town, Philadelphia, constantly changing, ever-mindful of its future, and haunted by 300 years of history—the nation’s most dramatic and colorful history. Almost everything once happened here, or was invented here, so no city in America offers more surprises than Philadelphia. Yes, there are problems. Unemployment is high; good, moderate-priced housing is scarce; the educational system appears ready to collapse; racism frequently raises its ugly head; a burdensome bureaucracy slows political and social progress; cabs are impossible to hail; the weather is unpredictable; and safety worries residents in certain neighborhoods. But every metropolis has problems. None, however, boasts the style of Philadelphia, a gift unique to its people. A gift bestowed upon the city at birth.
James Smart, Stand Before Kings: The Story of Business and Finance in Philadelphia, 1976
A New Englander in 1771 paid tribute to the city’s stature in both culture and commerce. “The Philadelphians,” he observed reluctantly, “not only outstrip us in the liberal arts, but also in the mechanical arts.” Who could help but acknowledge the preeminence of the city that could claim to have produced among America’s first almanacs, textbooks, printing types, weekly newspapers, magazines, and domestically-printed Bibles; the city that had perhaps the continent’s earliest pottery works, glass works, wallpaper works-as well as an early brewery?
Moses King, Philadelphia and Notable Philadelphians, 1902
Philadelphia, the third in area, and the ninth in population in the world, is the staunchest city in America. Its founders, the Quakers, gave it that character, and although the Society of Friends is no longer a conspicuous element, the city continues to be the strongest in financial and commercial standing. This quality of staunchness, integrity, and even thrift has at times been designated as ultraconservatism. The history of Philadelphia is one continuous story of more than two centuries of progress.
The city’s progress during its first century, owing to the slender opportunity for comparisons, seems much greater than since, when fifty cities in the Union are contending for recognition. On the ship that brought Penn to Philadelphia in 1682 was a printing press, the first in the colonies, although Jamestown was founded in 1607, Plymouth in 1620 and New York colonized in 1623. Within a few years the first paper mill in the New World was established in Philadelphia; in half a century the first type foundry; soon afterward the first Bible; the first insurance company; the first bank; the first medical school, etc. The list is entirely too long to enumerate, and it can be matched by no other city in the country.
Frank Brookhouser, Our Philadelphia: A Candid and Colorful Portrait of a Great City, 1957
Philadelphians don’t make a habit of shouting their feelings about their city loudly. If it’s possible to ruffle a Texan, they would drive one to distraction. They accept all of the gags about their city, the ridicule, the disparagement; the fun poked at it, with a kind of benign smile. They admit that there may be substance for many of the gags and soundness in some of the ridicule. And they smile again, somewhat as though they know a secret much too big and precious to be shared with any outsider. What they are saying then, in effect; is: So what? It’s nice living here. And it is.
Philadelphia has a way about her, too, and I think primarily it is this: Philadelphia ii a small town: A big town but a small town. It appeals to its people because of its old-fashioned charm, its casual slowness and the comparative leisure which remains possible in its busy metropolitan life. Its oldness, its familiarity, even its many unchanging ways, endear it to its residents. But basically, and above all, we like it because of its small-town flavor.
Struthers Burt, Philadelphia: Holy Experiment, 1945
So there it is, the great sprawling, obstinate, tenacious, slow-moving, but steadily moving, city, lying between its two rivers. And all around it is its lovely, luxurious countryside. And in it are a hundred things that stir the heart of an American, and a hundred things that make him angry. And what will happen to it, no one knows. But this at least is certain:
Run away if they may have to; stay away as long as they will; upbraid the city often, as is the habit of Philadelphians; let the native son, or daughter, come back for a visit, or for good, and they find themselves suddenly and strangely happy and content. As they step once more into the narrow crowded streets, and smell the soft, sooty air, and see the faces of the people who pass, they are suddenly happy.
There must be some sort of magic, mustn’t there?
About the author
Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011) and Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2000 titles new and old.